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Worst — and best — IT interview questions

Stephanie Wilkinson | July 10, 2013
Why are manhole covers round? Why do you ask? Tech managers weigh in on the practice of using brainteasers to screen IT candidates and share their own favorite interview questions.

"Many programmers don't know a thing about this keyword, so I would definitely expect most to give an 'I don't know' answer," he says. "If they do know what 'synthetic' means, they better know they can't use it, so it's an easy determination of both their skill level and their desire to bluff."

But Morgan doesn't stop there. "For those that do know the answer, I might follow up with something like, 'How do you get a pointer to the hyperbolic inhibitor of an inverse singleton instance?' Anything other than either 'I don't know' or 'Have you lost your mind?' and they're out."

He is not a fan of gotcha questions. "Asking the kind of questions that get candidates flushed and fumbling isn't productive," Morgan says. "When people get defensive, it's a bad interview on both sides."

At the same time, he believes interviewers ought to stay away from questions that begin, "Tell me a time when you..."

"I generally don't directly ask these kinds of questions. If the candidate presents an example of his or her experience, I might follow up and ask how they handled it or ask, 'How would you handle that if you were faced that situation again?' This way, we're homing in on their experience, but we know the answer isn't some rehearsed fantasy."

Beyond that, Morgan advises interviewers to "get off their pedestal" and be willing to consider answers that are not precisely the ones they were looking for. Having enough confidence to let the candidate run with an unexpected answer has rewards, Morgan believes.

In interviewing a candidate for a senior developer position, Morgan once asked a pointed question about a particular programming construct. He was looking for a simple, direct answer. What he got was a long and more abstract answer related to data architecture.

"Though he didn't directly answer the question, he gave me much more insight into the way he plans for problems in general, and in that context, he was right on," Morgan says.

"Though I could have pressed him for the technical answer, the response he gave was basically stating that if the application had been architecturally correct, the problem wouldn't exist," Morgan says. "This was way more valuable to me than any technical answer he would have given."

In general, Morgan, like Neal, believes in the power of questions that push a candidate to the limit of his or her knowledge. "I'm looking to weed out the people who would rather make up an answer than to say 'I don't know,'" Morgan says. "If they try to BS in the interview, they'll try to BS on the job."


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